Just when you thought the holiday season over and done with, Epiphany arrives today, January 6th. Celebrated since 361 A.D. and maybe even before as a pagan ritual, Epiphany means “manifestation” in Greek. To Western Christians, primarily Protestants and Roman Catholics, it marks the arrival of the Three Kings to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. To those of the Eastern Orthodox church, it commemorates Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. Coming 12 days after Christmas, and also known as Twelfth Night, Epiphany is celebrated in unique ways around the world. Check out sampling after the jump.
• In Greece, Bulgaria, and other Eastern Orthodox countries, priests bless crosses and toss them into frigid waters. Young men dive in after them. The first to find the cross is believed blessed with good luck for the new year.
• In Latin America, the Phillippines, and Spain, Epiphany is called Día de los Reyes Magos. During the celebration, the Three Kings bring gifts to good boys and girls, leaving them in the children’s straw-filled shoes left out the night before. In many of these nations, Santa’s a new kid on the block in terms of being the best gift-giver. Many bake a Rosa de Reyes cake with a small doll representing Jesus hidden inside.
• Italian kids await the arrival of the kindly, wizened witch, La Befana, who leaves gifts.
• In the Netherlands and Belgium, during Drie Koningen, kids dress as the three kings and visit neighbors’ houses, singing songs and receiving sweets and coins.
• In the U.S. and UK, many take down their Christmas decorations on Epiphany, believing it’s bad luck to do so before January 6th.
• In East Harlem, New York City, El Museo del Barrio, puts on its annual parade celebrating the arrival of the three kings, complete with music, dancing, and even live camels (above).
• Ethiopians call their Epiphany Timkat.
According to Ethiopian tradition, the three kings brought the Arc of the Covenant to Ethiopia. A model arc is placed on each altar during Timkat and Jesus’ baptism is re-enacted. Timkat isn’t celebrated January 6th, but two weeks later as Ethiopians don’t follow the Gregorian calendar.
• Twelfth Night is also the official start to the Carnival season, which is celebrated in Venice, Rio, New Orleans and other places around the world during the last few weeks before Lent as the Easter season begins. For more on how Mardi Gras is celebrated in New Orleans, read our feature in this month’s issue.
Photo of Three Kings Day Parade, El Museo del Barrio, by Carucha Meuse.
- Nat Geo Expeditions